It had been a week since we’d officially moved into our new house when an older, lanky man appeared at our front door.
“Who is it?” my husband Joe called out from the living room, busy setting up the furniture.
“An old man, probably one of the neighbors,” I answered.
“Hello there, nice to meet you! I’m Karen,” I greeted the man.
I reached out my hand, but the man completely ignored it. For a moment he stared at me before he opened his mouth.
“Are you looking for a gardener?”
Okay, that’s weird, I thought. Sure, we had a huge front yard and garden, but why’d he turn up here like this?
“Not really, thank you. Are you living nearby?”
“Yes, nearby. You sure you don’t need a gardener? I’d be happy to help you out with that garden of yours.”
“I don’t think we need any help. We’re just settling in, and right now we can’t afford to-”
“You don’t need to pay. I’d be happy to do it for free.”
“What?” I blurted out in confusion. What was up with this man?
“Well, that garden really needs some work and-”
“Look, mister, I appreciate the offer, I really do, but I have to decline, alright?”
For a moment the man’s face grew hard, and I was sure he’d explode at me, but then he nodded and left.
“Well, have a nice day as well,” I muttered under my breath.
Once I closed the door, I joined Joe in the living room.
“So? Was it a neighbor?”
“Honestly, I’ve got no idea. That guy was pretty damn weird.”
I told Joe about the encounter, but he only laughed and shrugged.
“Who knows, maybe he’s one of those people who can’t stand to look at an overgrown yard?”
In the end, we both laughed it off, and when our daughter Sarah entered the room I’d didn’t think about it anymore.
“Mommy, can you help me put up the pictures in my room?”
“Of course honey,” I answered with a bright smile and followed her upstairs.
It was the next day that I found Joe at the window looking outside. He was cursing to himself.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, what the hell is that guy doing?”
“Joe? What’s going on?”
“Someone’s out there, in the yard,” he said pointing at someone.
When I looked, I recognized the weird old man from the day before.
“That’s him! That’s the guy who was here yesterday!”
“Okay, that’s it!”
With that, Joe made his way outside and approached the man. I quickly followed him.
“Hey!” Joe called out, but the man didn’t react. Instead, he was busy cutting the hedge at the side of our garden.
“What the hell are you doing?” Joe called out yet again. This time the man turned to us.
“Taking care of the hedge,” he started as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “Really needs some cutting, see those branches here, they are-”
“Get the hell away from the hedge! What do you think you’re doing? My wife told you yesterday that we don’t need someone to take care of that!”
“You don’t need to pay me.”
“I’m not going to repeat it, get the fuck off our property or I’ll call the police!”
For a moment his eyes wandered from Joe to me and back to Joe before he picked up his tools and walked off.
“Mommy, who’s that?” Sarah called out to me from the front door.
“Oh, just someone living nearby,” I answered. She nodded and accepted in the way only little kids can.
“You think we should call the police?
For a moment I considered it, but then I shook my head.
“To be honest, he’s pretty weird but seems harmless enough. Only if he turns up here again.”
As the days passed, we finally finished furnishing the house. It was at this point that I decided it was time to take care of the garden. It really was unkempt, and I also didn’t want this weird old man to show up again.
The first thing I decided to do was to put up some rose bushes. They’d always been a favorite of mine, and Sarah absolutely loved them. Sarah and I had a lot of fun that afternoon planting them while Joe was at work.
The next day when I went out again to take care of another part of the garden, Sarah suddenly came up to me.
“Mommy, the plants moved!” she called out excitedly.
I smiled at her and asked her what she meant.
When I saw it, my heart skipped a beat. The spots where I’d planted the rose bushes were empty. There was nothing but soil left. The rose bushes, however, had been replanted a couple of meters away.
For a moment I reasoned that Joe might have done it, but he was at work. There was no way he’d the time to do that. Then something in my mind clicked. Don’t tell me…
When Joe was home, I told him what I thought had happened. He was visibly upset, more so than I was.
“That’s it, we’ve got to do something about this” he cursed.
He called the police then and there, and once they arrived, we told them about the whole thing. They were confused, and it took them a while to understand what was going on. They weren’t sure if we were joking. We assured them though that a random man had been taking care of our garden.
They took the story down but told us there wasn’t much they could do. In the end, they told us to give them a call if the man showed up again.
As they drove off, I could imagine them having a good laugh at a story as weird as this. Hell, even I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.
That night I couldn’t sleep. We hadn’t seen the man, so the only time he could’ve done it was when we were asleep. Again and again, I was drawn towards the window watching the front yard and the garden. I saw nothing though.
It must’ve been past three in the morning when I finally dozed off. When Joe woke me, I knew that the man had been here again.
“Trimmed half the damned hedge,” he cursed as he led me to the window. “There you see it?”
As I looked outside, I really saw it. The hedge on the left side of our garden was nicely trimmed. Hell, even the twigs and branches he must’ve cut off were gone.
“This is so strange,” I said and couldn’t help but laugh. “What the hell is wrong with that man?”
Joe didn’t say a thing. Instead, he went downstairs to make himself a cup of coffee.
For the next couple of days, I kept an almost constant watch, but I never saw the man. It was as if he was waiting for us to go to bed. Only to sneak into our garden and… take care of it.
After a few days, he’d taken care of the hedge, mowed the grass and even planted a lilac in the middle of the garden.
“You got to admit, it looks much better now,” I said one morning.
“That’s not the point Karen, we can’t let the guy do this! It’s just freaking weird!”
That night Joe and I decided to both stay up. We really had to do something about this.
It was at about four in the morning when Joe rocked me awake.
“There he is!”
I saw him. He was out there. He’d brought an assortment of gardening tools, a potted plant, and hell, even some fertilizer. For a minute I watched almost in a trance as the man started to dig a hole for the plant he’d brought.
It was at this moment that Joe had enough and stormed out of the house. I ran after him, calling the police on my mobile phone.
“You… what the hell are you doing?” Joe yelled at the man.
“Taking care of the garden. You didn’t-”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Why the hell are you… why the hell are you in our garden at four in the freaking morning!” Joe continued while I told the officers on the line our address.
“I’m just turning the garden into what it used to be. It’s what she’d wanted me to do.”
“What are you… she? Who the hell are you talking about?”
“Maria. My little angel Maria,” he said in a low voice.
“Who the hell’s Maria?” Joe called out in frustration.
That’s when the old man put down his gardening tools and started to explain. More than two decades ago he’d lived in this house with his family. There was him, his wife and their two daughters Maria and Lizzy. Maria, the younger of the two, was sick. She wasn’t allowed to go outside often, but when she did, she was always in the garden. The little girl loved flowers and roses more than anything.
“She said she wanted the garden to always stay like that.”
After Maria’s death a year later, it didn’t take long for the family to break apart. The death of a child is not something you can move on from. Once his wife took Lizzy and moved away, the old man, Jeremy Williams, stayed behind. For as long as he could afford he lived at the house and kept the garden the way it used to.
Finally, though, he couldn’t afford to stay at the house anymore and was evicted.
For the past fifteen years, as more and more new people moved into the house, the old man tried to restore the garden. Each one of them reacted like we did and chased him off.
By now though, he was old and didn’t want to give up so easily. All he wanted was the see his late daughter’s wish fulfilled one last time.
“I just want my little girl to be happy, wherever she is,” he said.
By now the police had arrived. The two men looked up when they saw us with the old man.
“So that’s the ominous gardener?” one of them asked.
“Sir, what are you doing here?”
“No, officer, I’m sorry, but it’s alright. There’s no crime here.” I interjected.
The officers eyed me suspiciously, and Joe and the old man were equally surprised.
“What do you mean, miss?” one of the officers asked me, not bothering to hide the annoyance in his voice.
“I guess this was all a misunderstanding. Mister Williams here is our new gardener. I’m sorry, we’ve got it all mixed up.”
The two of them weren’t happy to hear that at all. They gave us a long lecture about wasting valuable police resources.
Once they’d driven off, I told Mister Williams, he should come back tomorrow afternoon so we could have a talk with him.
The talk with Mister Williams went quite nice. The man was indeed quite weird, but he didn’t seem unfriendly at all. Most importantly, he seemed to have a pretty decent idea of what to do with the garden.
In the end, I decided to give the old man a chance of taking care of the garden.
At first, I mostly watched him curiously as he planted the flowers and bushes we bought for the garden. In time though I warmed up to him. Many afternoons, while Joe was at work, Sarah and I hung out with him and helped him out with his work.
Our little girl grew especially fond of the wacky old man. While I often sat on the front porch, reading a book, the old man explained each and every flower to our little girl. One day, he told me she reminded me a lot of his little Maria. In a way, the old man seemed to be the perfect babysitter for her.
That’s why I left Sarah with him last Saturday.
Joe was busy, working on one of his many work-related projects. As I was about to prepare dinner, I noticed that we’d ran out of a few things. I decided to make a quick trip to the grocery store.
“Sarah, you want to come with me to the grocery store?”
“Nuh-uh. I want to stay with Mister Williams and the flowers!” she answered poutily.
The old man and I had a good laugh about it.
“You sure you can handle this little devil all by yourself?” I asked turning to the old man.
“Of course, I could really use a few helping hands with all that work,” he said with a big grin on his face.
AT the grocery store I ran into one of our neighbors, an old woman named Margarethe. She was an old woman in her early sixties and lived down the street.
“Karen,” she greeted me, “I must say you’ve really outdone yourself with that garden of yours!”
“Oh, thank you, but it wasn’t me, it was our new gardener.”
“Either way, it’s beautiful. I’m sure little Lizzy would’ve been happy to see it like that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked confused.
“Oh, it’s such a sad story, Karen. Back in the day, a family lived in that house, and one of the little girls died right there in that garden. She used to love it so much.”
“I know about the story, but her name was Maria, wasn’t it?”
“Maria? No. Maria was always sick, but Lizzy was the one who broke her neck when she fell off that tree.”
What the hell was she talking about? This made no sense. Mister Williams had told us he did all that for his daughter Maria.
“But Mister Williams said it was Maria who’d died there.”
“That’s impossible dear,” the old lady said in a confused voice, “Mister Williams died three years ago.”
“But, but the old man is right there, at our house! He’s our gardener!”
I could see how the old lady’s face turned as white as a sheet. “No. Karen. That’s completely impossible! Old Williams died at the retirement home. I was even at the funeral and…”
I didn’t listen anymore. If old Williams was dead, then who was that man in our garden? Why had he said it was Maria? None of this made any sense. Why’dhe pretend to be Williams?
Then I remembered Sarah. The way he’d always talked to her, the way he’d played and joked with her. How he’d watched her. Oh god, I thought he’d seen his daughter in her, but, but…
I rushed from the story without any of the groceries and dialed Joe’s number. Come on, come on, answer the goddamn phone, Joe! Finally, after a dozen rings, he picked up.
“Joe! Where are you? Where’s Sarah?”
“She must be out in the garden with Mister Williams? Why what’s-”
“Go and get her right away!”
“Just do it, Joe! Go and get Sarah!”
I heard him walk through the house and until he finally opened the front door. Oh please let her be there, please let her be there.
“Sarah? Sarah, where are you?”
“Oh god, Joe? Joe, what’s going on?”
“I can’t see her. Sarah!”
“Joe, where’s Mister Williams?”
I heard him shuffle around, calling out for the old man, then again for our daughter. I could hear how he started to get more and more agitated.
“I can’t find them, Karen. Where-”
That’s when I hung up the phone and called the police. I was in absolute hysterics. It took them multiple times to understand what was going on. When they finally got it, they were as alarmed as me and sent out patrols to search the area.
Thankfully it didn’t take long before they found Sarah and Mister Williams, or whoever the man was. The old man and Sarah were holding hands, and he’d already led her down half a dozen blocks towards an abandoned industrial area.
When the police took him in the finally found out who the man really was. His name was Tom Edwards. He was a registered sex offender from half a state away.
The man had arrived in our town about a month ago. He’d mostly stayed at a rundown motel nearby. It was by sheer chance that he saw us move in and also saw Sarah.
When he found out about the history of the house, a plan hatched in his mind. Knowing that we’d just moved in and wouldn’t be aware of the story, he decided to pretend to be old Mister Williams.
When the police searched the old warehouse, they found a variety of twisted items there. Rope, rubber gloves, anesthesia, and other things, I didn’t want to hear about.
That day, when I went grocery shopping, he finally got his chance.
Even now I can’t stop thinking about that afternoon.
What would have happened to our little girl if he hadn’t mixed up the names?